Cover of Subs and Chill with Annabel Graham

Subs and Chill
with Annabel Graham

Subs and Chill is a bi-weekly conversation with writers on rejections, the submission process, and all the moments in between, before hitting submit. This week, Annabel Graham shares why its best to submit to top tier places first, how taking breaks from a piece can work wonders, what she has learned through rejections and working as the fiction editor of No Tokens.

“I'm also a big proponent of letting the material rest—putting it in a proverbial drawer for a few months before dusting it off and looking again with fresh eyes. A little distance and perspective can work wonders.”

Do you remember your first rejection? How did you feel about it? Looking back, is there anything you learned from that experience?

Ironically enough, the first journal I remember being rejected by was No Tokens, where I'm now Fiction Editor. This was about ten years ago now; I think I had submitted a few poems. It was one the kindest rejection letters I've received to this day. I was disappointed, of course, but it felt encouraging of my writing in a broader sense—they were complimentary of my work and invited me to submit again. Looking back, I'm grateful those poems weren't published—I'd be genuinely horrified if you could find them on the Internet (and still feel that way about some of my early publications!).

What was the first piece you got published? How did you celebrate? Also, what does your process look like for researching where to submit your work? (do you browse or just submit to anyone with subs open regardless?)

I went to an elementary school in Los Angeles that held a Young Authors' Fair each year—students would receive a blank hardcover book in which we'd write and illustrate our own stories, down to the cover and author bio. My first "book" was called The Talking Rake and centered around a lonely young girl who discovered that the rake in her parents' shed could talk. I was clearly an only child—and fascinated by the concept of raking leaves, having grown up in a place where seasons didn't really exist. So I suppose that was my first-ever experience of being "published," in an unofficial sense—and looking back, how lucky I was to have had that experience! After that, I published a few poems in my high school's literary journal, and later became its Poetry Editor. My first fiction publication as an adult was in 2015, in a journal called Corium Magazine (which I believe is now defunct)—a short story called "Quiet Game." I was thrilled. It was around that time that I began to take writing more seriously, and it felt like a little push to keep going.

I'm pretty intentional about submissions—I don't submit very frequently, or cast too wide of a net. This is partially because, for the past several years, I've been working on a longer project that doesn't lend itself easily to excerpting. When I was first beginning to submit my work in my early twenties, my friend T Kira Madden, who had done an MFA and was more plugged into the literary landscape, was kind enough to share a list of smaller journals with me, so I started there. Now, I usually take note of where peers whose work I admire have been published. That was how I found Joyland and Cosmonauts Avenue, where early stories of mine were accepted. I also look to the publications I personally enjoy reading; the ones I find most exciting in terms of sensibility.

For a short piece like a story or a poem, how many places do you submit it to at a time? Do you keep track of your submissions? What does your editorial process look like before you hit submit?

If I feel a piece is ready, I'll submit to maybe three or four places. I do prefer to submit to a few top-tier places and wait for a response before lowering the bar, because of a particularly devastating experience I once had—I'd submitted a story to a handful of journals, and it was accepted by a small independent online publication. I somehow forgot to withdraw the story from the other places I'd submitted, and a few months later, I learned that it had also been accepted by a much larger publication; one I'd always dreamed of being published in. I had to decline, as it had already gone up on the other journal's site. I was grateful to have the story published at all, but there's no question that the bigger publication would've reached a wider audience. Tears were shed—and a lesson was learned!

I don't have any special system for keeping track of submissions, apart from checking their status occasionally on Submittable—after submitting, I try my best to forget about having done so until hearing back. That might sound sort of flippant, but I find it's the best for my mental health. Being hypervigilant about submissions just causes me unnecessary anxiety.

When I first began submitting, years ago, I was writing shorter pieces, and I barely revised. I had a lot of beginner's luck, as many of those early pieces found homes right away—which, I think, bolstered my confidence to continue. As I've grown older and matured as a writer, my standards have become higher; my eye sharper. These days, I don't submit a piece before it's been through at least a few rounds of revision. Once I finish something I feel has potential, I'll send it to a few trusted readers, and will spend some time with their notes, incorporating what resonates. I'm also a big proponent of letting the material rest—putting it in a proverbial drawer for a few months before dusting it off and looking again with fresh eyes. A little distance and perspective can work wonders.

What type of writer are you when it comes to submitting your work: Do you hold on to a piece for a long time and then have to give yourself a pep talk (if yes, please share) or do you subscribe to a more fuck it hit submit right away approach? If your piece gets rejected, are you one to power through and move on to the next publication or do you sit with it a little longer and try to figure out where you might’ve gone wrong?

When a piece has been through the necessary rounds of revision and drawer time—and if it feels alive and urgent to me—I don't see any reason for holding onto it. Rejection stings, but there is much to be learned from it. As for how I move forward, it depends on the rejection. So many factors go into whether a piece is selected for publication—as an editor myself, I'm lucky to see "behind the curtain" and understand this on a deeper level. If an editor takes the time to offer feedback—a generous act, as many of us work on a volunteer basis—I'll spend some time sitting with it. If it resonates, I'll use it to revise before submitting elsewhere. If it doesn't, I try to bear in mind that taste is subjective and not everyone is my reader (and thank goodness for that).

Is there a rejection letter that stands out in your mind? Something particularly harsh or intense? Or maybe even comical?

There's one that sticks out in my mind from a few years back—it was incredibly complimentary, yet bizarrely detailed. The editors had compiled each of their positive and negative responses to the piece and my writing in general, which were followed by a play-by-play of the conversation that had happened around the piece; how they were this close to accepting, but ultimately decided against it. They proposed an alternate opening, and heartily encouraged me to submit in the future. A near-miss should read as a vote of confidence, but for some reason that one stung more than a form rejection might've—it felt deeply personal. Looking back, the reason they listed for not accepting the piece was probably correct—and I ended up tabling it for the time being—but I definitely didn't need that much information about the ins and outs of their editorial discussion.

What publication or magazine would you love to see yourself in someday? Or, if you have already been published in your dream pub, tell us about the experience.

The Sewanee Review has long been on my list of dream publications—I subscribed several years ago for the specific purpose of reading Stephanie Danler's essay "Stoned Fruits" and have been a great fan ever since. It's one of the only journals I consistently read cover-to-cover—I am always so excited by the work they put out. After submitting and being rejected once, I'm happy to share that I have an essay coming out with them later this year! I submitted to their annual contest, and though my piece didn't place, they decided to publish it anyway

Like everyone else, I also dream of being published in The Paris Review (where I was an intern many years ago), The New Yorker, and Granta. I've also been very impressed by The Yale Review lately, and Freeman's. If Astra Magazine were still around, it would be high on my list.

Is being published all it’s cracked up to be? What is your advice for writers who are working on getting published?

I think that depends on what you imagine it's cracked up to be. Recognition provides a nice (if fleeting) dopamine hit, and a byline in a well-respected publication can certainly open doors. Ultimately, there's no secret to being published beyond working hard on your craft, reading widely and voraciously, and hitting submit. But I do recommend spending time with the publications you're interested in to become familiar with what kind of work they're putting out—and doing some research to find out where the writers you admire were first published.

Okay, you are really hungry and in front of a sub shop. What is your all time favorite sandwich order?

Going to pivot from sub shop and pretend I'm in front of Gjusta or Courage Bagels here in LA, which make a few of my favorite versions of the following: a toasted bialy with labne, smoked salmon, Persian cucumbers, lettuce, tomato, thinly-sliced red onion, capers, dill, and a lot of lemon.